Few would expect the No. 1-ranked team in the country not to look past a seemingly inferior opponent with a showdown against a top-20 foe looming, but that seems unlikely for a Michigan State squad still not playing up to the standards of coach Tom Izzo.
The Spartans seeks a 74th straight home victory over an unranked non-conference opponent when they face Mount St. Mary's on Friday.
Michigan State (6-0) jumped to the top of the poll after beating then-No. 1 Kentucky 78-74 on Nov. 12, but Izzo wasn't pleased with his team then and the Spartans have struggled at times since. They had to pull away late to beat Columbia on Nov. 15 and Portland on Nov. 18 before routing Virginia Tech 96-77 last Friday in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic.
The Spartans fell behind early then nearly blew a big second-half lead in the championship game, holding on for an 87-76 win over Oklahoma on Saturday.
"I thought we showed character in figuring out a way to win ... but that gets a little worrisome, too," Izzo said.
Keith Appling, named the tournament MVP, scored a career-high 27 points. Sophomore Gary Harris, averaging a team-best 17.7 points, fought through leg cramps to score 21.
''After we beat Kentucky and moved to No. 1, we've been getting everybody's best shot,'' Appling said. ''They are coming at us for 40 minutes and we have to play hard for all 40 minutes.
"Our coaches and us (players) have a standard about how we play."
Izzo has been impressed with Appling, averaging 16.8 points and 55.9 percent shooting. The senior point guard has never shot better than the 43.6 percent clip he posted as a freshman.
"He's such a fabulous athlete," Izzo said.
In customary Izzo fashion, Michigan State has one of the country's toughest non-conference schedules and will face No. 16 North Carolina on Wednesday at the Breslin Center in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
The Spartans, though, must first take care of Mount St. Mary's as Izzo looks to improve to 53-0 all-time in November. The team hasn't lost at home in this month since Navy, led by future NBA Hall of Famer David Robinson, won 91-90 in overtime Nov. 29, 1986.
The Mountaineers (2-5) of the Northeast Conference are coming off Tuesday's 69-64 win over Bucknell, their second straight after losing five road games to start the season.
Rashad Whack scored a game-high 22 points but fellow senior Julian Norfleet, who averages a team-best 18.7, scored 13. Mount St. Mary's, which ranks among the national leaders in 3-point attempts per game at 26.0, went 5 for 17.
The Mountaineers, who have allowed 64 points in each of their back-to-back wins, should be tested by an up-tempo Michigan State team that's scored 88.3 per game in its last three.
Izzo is hoping for a better performance from senior Adreian Payne, who had a career-high 29 points against the Hokies but finished with one field goal and four points Saturday - far below his season average of 17.2.
''It was A.P.'s night to struggle,'' Izzo said. ''It should be a good learning experience for him.''
This marks the second meeting between the schools and first since the Spartans beat the Mountaineers 76-53 in the first round of the 1999 NCAA tournament, in which they secured the first of Izzo's six Final Four appearances.
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